Supersizeport 'will destroy wildlife'

Green groups threaten mass protests as approval given for huge container facility on rare bird habitats
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Plans for a new "super-port" on the south coast of England are to be approved despite the threat of legal action by conservationists and mass protests from hardline "eco-warriors".

The Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, will give the go-ahead for a £600m deep-sea container port to be built at Dibden Bay opposite Southampton, even though the scheme will destroy one of Britain's most important and heavily protected waterbird sites.

The decision - which comes despite concerted opposition from the Government's official wildlife advisers at English Nature and the Countryside Agency - will provoke a furious response from local residents, environmentalists and conservation groups.

Dibden Bay is home to dozens of rare and threatened birds, including the lapwing, skylark and reed bunting, as well 88 rare or scarce insects, including two very rare beetles and bumble bees, and rare coastal grasses.

Crucially, part of the 200-hectare port will also be inside the boundary of England's next national park, the New Forest National Park, which is expected to be set up by the Government this summer.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Friends of the Earth are already consulting their lawyers about taking legal action to block the project. They allege the Government has broken the European Habitats Directive, and are preparing to take the case to the European Court of Justice.

Green activists are drafting plans for blockades and occupations of the site - in a repeat of the mass protests that dogged the Manchester airport expansion. Tony Juniper, executive director of FoE, said that direct protests were highly likely if legal action failed. "The tactics seen in the anti-road campaigns of the 1990s - physically blocking vehicles and machinery - could well happen, and Friends of the Earth probably won't condemn those people," he said.

Mr Darling's go-ahead - expected to be announced early next month - follows a year-long public inquiry into the scheme after 7,000 objections were lodged.

The port will be built by Associated British Ports (ABP) as a new "super-port" to handle thousands of deep-sea container ships a year. It will involve 2km of quayside and six deep-sea berths, take until 2012 to complete and eventually handle 2.3 million containers a year. ABP claims the new port is essential as it will run out of spare capacity in Southampton within two years, potentially losing business to foreign ports. However, its critics insist the port is in the wrong place, since 65 per cent of its imports go to northern England.

The RSPB and FoE claim Mr Darling has broken British and EU law by failing to consider whether three other major new ports now being planned - on the Thames and the Suffolk coast - are better alternatives.

The Habitats Directive states that sites such as Dibden Bay can be harmed only if all alternatives are exhausted - a requirement the RSPB's lawyers claim the Department for Transport has ignored. Graham Wynn, chief executive of the RSPB, said: "If all four proposals are consented, this is likely to lead to totally unwarranted destruction of our internationally important wildlife heritage."